The Wall Street Journal
April 1, 2003
In the Fray / By Benjamin Ivry
As readers of the Library of America volumes devoted to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler know, nothing proves love for an author more than getting his last minor pulp efforts into print. This year is the centenary of Georges Simenon (1903-1989), the Belgian-born author who created the Inspector Maigret stories. For the occasion, Harcourt is reprinting dozens of Maigret books that have already appeared in English translation. Yet despite the fact that Simenon's literary rights are now handled by the British corporation Chorion, no English-language publisher has looked further into the man's oeuvre for hidden treasures. Every sign indicates that they do exist.
Admittedly, the sizable backlist would daunt any publisher. All of the mature novels Simenon signed with his own name have been translated, 200 or so, even if some were butchered by the translator Geoffrey Sainsbury, who according to Simenon's biographer Pierre Assouline changed "names, psychological profiles, details, and even plot elements."
But Simenon's earlier work, still unknown in English, fills another 12 stout omnibus volumes in a recent series from Presses de la Cité in Paris. Books like "Au pont des Arches" and "Jehan Pinaguet," which were signed Georges Sim, would provide the kind of pulp-fiction jolt that early Hammett and Chandler do. "Au pont des Arches" is that ultimate rarity, a humorous Simenon novel, published in 1921 under an agreement by which the author had to find 300 subscribers before the publisher issued it. He was less fortunate the same year with "Jehan Pinaguet," a rather daring tale of a drunken priest that was banned, and reissued decades later only after Simenon had become a household name.
A number of Simenon's short-story collections have also remained untranslated, as well as dozens of his books of memoirs, all up to his usual standard of plausibility and linguistic energy.
In his lifetime Simenon published some 570 books, using 17 pen names, which have sold more than 700 million copies in 40 countries and were translated into 57 languages. He managed this output by sitting at his typewriter on days he decided to write for nine hours until 80 pages were done, while downing two bottles of Burgundy. A complete novel, revised and ready for the printer, took less than two weeks and some years he published a dozen, making Joyce Carol Oates lazy by comparison.
Moreover, Simenon is not merely about volume. André Gide called him "perhaps the greatest and most authentic novelist we have in French literature today," pointing to his deceptively drab, yet convincing, depictions of Belgians who eat mussels, drink beer, and occasionally murder one another. Gide particularly appreciated the books in which no one is slain, noting the "subtle psychological problems" in novels of domestic hell like "The Cat," about a bitter yet durable marriage, later depicted in a film starring Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret.
However, the flood of Harcourt titles will reinforce the inescapability of Maigret, the second most famous Belgian literary detective, after Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. The pipe-smoking, plodding Maigret has none of Poirot's dandyish qualities, nor is he quaint or cute or even inordinately charming. In that way, he seems to imitate his creator.
Simenon repeatedly claimed to have slept with 10,000 women, "of whom 8,000 were prostitutes." Literalists point out that this would mean a different woman every other day for many decades, whereas only a few of Simenon's actual relationships with his two wives and the African-American singer Josephine Baker are documented. Whatever the truth may be, French author Jacques Drillon says that the thousands of women probably kept Simenon from being "the sterile imbecile he might have been. You can't be a sedentary bourgeois fellow when you're having sex with two different women per day for a half-century." Simenon himself thought he was "an imbecile of genius," adding: "I am absolutely unintelligent. I have no critical spirit and no imagination." Which might explain the 17 virulent articles he published from 1919 to 1922 on the "Jewish Peril" that took the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as literal truth.
These bigoted aspects were part of his self-image as a permanently aggrieved outsider. Despite amazing wealth, he never felt accepted, and when Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Simenon proceeded to beat his wife out of sheer frustration.
Confronted by similar career frustrations, Inspector Maigret, in every way a more companionable character than his inventor, would have just quietly eaten his mussels and fries.